Sometimes the right book arrives at the right time. Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund’s book of letters, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game was a book I gulped down in a series of summer evenings, stretched out on the living room floor, trying to survive central California in July.
The book is a series of letters, ostensibly about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, between Knausgaard, at home in a sleepy village in Sweden, and Ekelund, who is staying in Rio de Janeiro. I say “ostensibly” because while there is plenty of soccer analysis, the letters typically overflow their banks with a flood of other topics: class, memory, gender, parenting, culture, literature, meaning. We hear about trips to the local pool with the kids (Knausgaard) and pick-up soccer games on the beach (Ekelund). It’s about all of life, more or less, but grounded in a particular moment, with the spectacle of the games providing a through line for the reader to follow.
She smacked her forehead. Who’s going to read it?! she said. Is he in the stadium watching while you watch TV here? Yes, I said. But I write about other things too. Like what? she said. Whatever’s on my mind, I answered. Don’t write what you’re thinking about, Dad! she shouted. That’s what I do, I said. Today, for example, I’ve written about the drive to the theatre. How nice it was. Oh no! she said.Knausgaard’s daughter on the project of Home and Away
I’m deep into Knausgaard right now, I’ve read a little over 2000 pages of his work so far this year, and so part of my enjoyment of the book is just due to the enthusiasm of my new discovery: the pleasure of finding an author I enjoy and falling in. To find yourself resonating with the harmonies in someone else’s work is one of the great joys of reading at its best. But, there are other elements too that made the book appealing. Part of it is that the back and forth of letters always provides an interesting window into the dynamics of people and their relationships. I usually like collections of letters better than diaries, which I find can be become self-enclosed and static. In this case, there is the contrast in locations (Brazil and rural Sweden), the contrast in temperaments (Ekelund the optimist, Knausgaard the realist), in life stages (Knausgaard has a new baby on his hands, Ekelund’s children are mostly grown) – all of which create an enjoyable back and forth as the writers range over their topics. Knausgaard, who I often find quite funny, is at his warmest and funniest here in any of his books I’ve read. Writing in response to Ekelund’s description of a day on the beach:
I made a note of something you said at the start, ‘Decided to look after myself instead,’ and I thought, what the hell, I want to do that too! It’s about time! But it has never happened. I don’t know any more what I would do. For the last twelve years I haven’t had a single whole day when I have stayed in bed or dozed on the beach. I haven’t been ill, I haven’t had a holiday – apart from the trip to Mauritius I mentioned, but that was with three children, you know what it is like with them, Daddy, Daddy, look look, come on, Daddy, jump in! I am not complaining, that wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted more to explain how this life of mine is actually lived, supporting Argentina although they are poor and having no interest in enjoyment. So I am not jealous of you, although I have to admit it sounds rather wonderful, the sunlounger, the beach, the Atlantic – ALL ALONE! NO CHILDREN! NOT EVEN FOOTBALL MATCHES OR WRITING!
I also enjoyed the portrayal of friendship. Friendship is a sometimes hidden theme in Knausgaard’s work; hidden, in part, by his emphasis on his isolation and tendency to withdraw. He says in one of the early letters in the book: “I hide. I don’t initiate conversation with people on planes, I hardly even talk with my neighbours, and if I do it is with the intention of getting away, which of course they notice because it is reflected in your body language.” And this is classic Knausgaard, but is only half the story. Because, in his work, at the same time as he withdraws in general, he describes some very deep particular friendships. Geir Angell, who has a central role in the My Struggle books (and a central role in their creation – Knausgaard describes calling him every day to read the pages he’d written over the phone) is the obvious example. The friendship between the two is close enough that one of the central tensions in at least a couple of the volumes of My Struggle is Linda’s frustration with Knausgaard’s openness to Geir and reticence with herself (it’s a justified frustration, by the way!).
Ekelund and Knausgaard’s friendship, at least what is revealed in the book, does not have that same intimacy, but it provides a window into the sort of triangulation that friendship allows as they write back and forth. The range of their exploration, from Karl Ove’s description of taking up painting in an attempt to get through a period of depression, to Ekelund’s vivid reports of Brazilian locales points to the shared world that friendship can provide. Friendship can open up the self, at least a little, and there’s something enjoyable about participating in that, even if vicariously.
But, beyond all that, the thing that made this the right book for this time was its sense of what I can only describe as “elsewhere.” The book is titled Home and Away after all, and the tension between the two is another common theme in Knausgaard – his desire for escape (a working title for My Struggle was Argentina) along with his deep appreciation of the ordinary. Karl Ove writes from his messy home office to Fredrik in Brazil: “You’re six hours behind us, so it must be a few minutes after six in the evening where you are. I can see you in a restaurant by the sea, it is dark outside, you have a beer on the table and you are talking to your friend the film-maker, the breakers wash ashore below, and the lamps hanging from a cable above you swing gently to and fro in the wind. One thing I do know: it doesn’t look like that where you are. But for me, until you correct me, it does. As for me, I am sitting in a room that bears a close resemblance to a rubbish tip …” And I, reading this book, was lying on the floor of my living room trying to stay cool in the summer heat, in the midst of a global pandemic, six years later. Part of the appeal was simply to escape from the anxieties and stresses of the moment into something … normal: two friends talking over the latest game (and whatever else happens to come up). For, at this particular moment, even Karl Ove’s descriptions of trips to the local pool or going out for ice cream with his kids have a whiff of the exotic; the “home” of peaceful domesticity that the letters describe feels very far away at the moment. And, this is one of the other great joys of reading, a chance to step into a different world, even if only for a little while.